Blind Man with a Pistol


Against Freedom: Free Speech

In Areopagitica (1644) , John Milton, poet, revolutionary and parliamentarian, wrote what became the ur-text for defenders of free speech in the modern era. Although it had virtually no political impact at the time, it influenced the arguments of free-speech advocates for centuries: its heritage can even be observed in the United States Bill of Rights. In a virtuoso performance, Milton mixes Classical and Christian imagery to forward a profound statement against censorship:

Unlesse warinesse be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but he who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.

Lovely stuff. Milton was condemning the Licensing Order of 1643, which reinstated the authority to ban texts pre-publication, and represented, for Milton at least, a regression toward regimes like that of Spain, who were archaic and worse, Catholic (or, in the creative parlance of British sectarianism, ‘papes’). The only problem with Milton’s eloquent tract is that he’s not really against censorship at all. He’s only against censorship before a book is published. Here’s the almost equally vibrant passage that precedes the above:

I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

In fact, Milton’s treatise can be read as a plea to demand treasonous and blasphemous individuals publish their thoughts so as to ensure their crimes are adequately punished. We want our papists and royalists outed, after all.

Milton’s trick, a wondrous blend of revolution and conservatism, founds the strategy that would come to define free speech for the remainder of the millennium: he proposes a plan that enables coercion, facilitates the suppression of dissent, and ensures subversive forces are exposed and expatriated—all under the veil of what the ruling classes, never without a sense of humour, have labelled ‘Free Speech’. Milton knows that speech is never free—it’s only a matter of when your debt is called in. But this wrinkle in the modern understanding of free speech has faded from social memory.

Hence, the price of free speech is the principle commonly thought to be its synonym: freedom of thought. By shifting censorship post-production, we are forced to filter our expressions before they are published. That is, by removing pre-publication bans and replacing it with a censorious judiciary after publication, Milton’s brand of free speech effects a much more efficient type of restriction. If the book is ‘reason it selfe’, and the book is fair game for a moralizing lawmaker, then the best defence is altering reason. This so-called freedom breeds self-censorship.

But don’t take my word for it. Firebrand journalist and author G.K. Chesterton festooned the ironic logic of free speech in his wonderful spy thriller, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908):

‘The work of the philosophical policeman’, replied the man in blue, ‘is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime….We say that the most dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher’.

The key difference between Chesterton’s ‘philosophical policemen’ and Milton’s hated papacy is that the ‘philosophical policemen’, a group of undercover officers infiltrating the subversive ‘anarchists’ of Britain, turn out to be more pervasive and prolific than the populace they are supposed to survey. Indeed, by the novel’s end, these policemen comprise the entire society, fighting and observing each other. In Chesterton’s cynical revision, censorship continues apace—the only difference being, in the words of Radiohead, you do it to yourself.

With that in mind, compare Chesterton’s satirical passage, in which Gabriel Syne, the latest recruit of the philosophical policemen, reveals his motivating convictions, to Milton’s treatise against the suppression of heresy:

‘Yes, the modern world has retained all those parts of police work which are really oppressive and ignominious, the harrying of the poor, the spying upon the unfortunate. It has given up its more dignified work, the punishment of powerful traitors in the State and powerful heresiarchs in the Church. The moderns say we must not punish heretics. My only doubt is whether we have a right to punish anybody else’.

What Chesterton’s delicious irony reveals, of course, is that modernity hasn’t given up punishing heresy at all: it’s simply shifted the responsibility.

Consider whence the loudest braying and appeals to free speech come: more often than not it issues from the far right, like when they fought for the privilege of Danish cartoonists to mock and villainize Muslims. When a concept meant to promote democracy and liberty ends up acting as a shield for racists and imperialists, it’s time to consider implementing a curfew. Is defending fascism what Milton had in mind when he wrote his famous apologia?

In fact, in a further twist of irony, our governments have used its shibboleth of ‘free speech’ to invalidate dissent. There is, first of all, the sardonically named ‘Free-Speech Zones’ that have leeched their way into Western ‘democracies’, relegating dissent into safely cordoned-off areas of impotence. Even when free speech is not so explicitly marginalized, it is systematically defanged by cynical smugness. The protests against the war in Iraq saw 36 million people speak out against the United States’ illegal, ill-fated pre-emptive attack. Rather than shortcircuit a now-hopless war that has since cost milions of civilians’ lives and set back hope for stability in the region for a generation, it permitted the administrations of Bush and Blair a wry smile of condescenion: ‘this is what we are fighting for’, they insisted. The right for Iraqis of free speech and political dissent. By upholding the spectacle of free speech rather than its essence, liberalism sold freedom of expression as a brand, draining the substance of its objection and hanging it on an unjustifiable war. Our empty freedoms have now become Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s.

Faced with such paralyzing impotence we might be tempted to dispose with free speech altogether. This would be a grave mistake. While Milton might have been treacherous in his spirited defence of free speech, he was not wholly wrong. Freedom of expression, however insidious and ethereal, must be pursued in a robust democracy. To dissuade discouragement, I can olnly turn to Chesterton again, and the words of his Professor de Worms:

‘Young man, I am amused to observe that you think I am a coward. As to that I shall say only one word, and it will be entirely in the manner of your own philosophical rhetoric. You think it is impossible to pull down the President. I know it is impossible, and I am going to try it’.

Shall we? Let’s.

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American Psycho

The tragedy of Brandon Crisp, whose funeral was Friday, has fuelled a resurgence in the backlash against violent video games, like Brandon’s favourite, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Although Brandon likely died of chest trauma sustained after falling out of a tree, the incident has inspired what critics term ‘video game addiction’, as in this sensationally titled Macleans article, ‘What Happened to Brandon?’:

The idea that a simple video game could so completely upend a teenager’s life is the kind of thing that most parents, at least until recently, would not have taken seriously. After all, shoot-’em-up computer simulations don’t raise the same sort of red flags for parents as drugs, alcohol, or delinquent friends. But there is growing concern, even in medical and scientific quarters, that there may be a link between video games like Call of Duty and obsessive, even addictive, behaviour. For some teens, this might lead to minor problems like slipping grades and a loss of interest in other hobbies. But there are an increasing number of reports of far more tragic outcomes. Earlier this year, for instance, a British boy committed suicide after his father took away a Wii game. In a youth culture where so much social interaction has moved online, the deep ties young people can form to games and other computer pastimes could, some experts say, be a recipe for disaster. How do you tell when that line has been crossed? Today, it’s the kids who don’t play video games that stand out. According to a survey released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project last month, 97 per cent of U.S. teens aged 12 to 17 say they regularly “game,” whether on a console system, computer, or handheld device. In Brandon’s school alone 25 other students regularly play Call of Duty on the same online system he used. And the business continues to grow exponentially. In 2007, software sales reached US$9.5 billion, with nine games sold every second, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

I’m not sure why any of this is cause for alarm: surely a stat saying that 97 per cent of teens play video games indicates that it is normative behaviour? Are teenagers equally ‘addicted’ to driving cars or ice cream sodas?

In his 2008 book Violence, Slavoj Žižek posits the theory that there are two kinds of violence: subjective violence, violent acts that incite our subjective outrage and ire; and objective or ‘systemic’ violence,  the necessary violence that sustains liberal capitalist hegemony. More importantly, acts of subjective violence—the suicide bomber, the school shooting, particularly violent video games, movies or books—blind us to the systemic, endemic violence in which we are complicit. ‘Is there not something suspicious’, Žižek writes,

indeed symptomatic, about this focus on subjective violence—that violence which is enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds? Doesn’t it desperately try to distract our attention from the true locus of trouble, by obliterating from view other forms of violence and thus actively participating in them? According to a well-known anecdote, a German officer visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. There he saw Guernica and, shocked at the modernist ‘chaos’ of the painting, asked Picasso: ‘Did you do this?’ Picasso calmly replied: ‘No, you did this!’ Today, many a liberal when faced with violent outbursts such as the recent looting in the suburbs of Paris, asks the few remaining leftists who still count on a radical social transformation: ‘Isn’t it you who did this? Is this what you want?’ And we should reply, like Picasso: ‘No, you did this! This is the true result of your politics!’ (9-10)

Although I’ve written about this dissonance before, I am reminded now more than ever about the controversy surrounding Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991). The novel, a hyperviolent satire about closet psycho killer Patrick Bateman (interpreted masterfully by Christian Bale in the 2000 film version), viciously skewers the sadistic violence that underpins the so-called free market. Bateman, a stupidly rich Wall Street investment banker blandly narrates his daily life between meaningless affairs, decadent lunches and copious lines of high-grade cocaine. He describes his sadistic torture and murder of prostitutes as casually as he describes returning video tapes or the vacuous pop music of Whitney Houston. Ellis’s statement is clear: violence and the capitalist system are inextricably and pervertedly linked.

The backlash against American Psycho was as palpable as it was predictable. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was ‘outraged’. Incredibly, however, NOW chose to voice their criticism in liberal, capitalist terms, with appeals to ‘free speech’ and free-market principles, precisely the principles Ellis critiques in his book:

“We are not telling them not to publish,” Tammy Bruce, the president of the Los Angeles chapter, said. Instead, she said, members are being asked to exercise their right of free expression by refusing to buy the novel so the publisher “will learn violence against women in any form is no longer socially acceptable.”

The free market would teach Ellis. Consumers would ‘vote with their dollar’. As we now know, the book was a runaway bestseller and spawned a critically and financially successful film. The consumer, as anyone who has read Ellis will tell you, is nothing if not powerless.

I decide to even up the score a little bit by showing everyone my new business card. I pull it out of my gazelleskin wallet (Barney’s, $850) and slap it on the table, waiting for reactions.

“What’s that, a gram?” Price says, not apathetically.

“New card.” I try to act casual about it but Fm smiling proudly. “What do you think?”

“Whoa,” McDermott says, lifting it up, fingering the card, genuinely impressed. “Very nice. Take a look.” Be hands it to Van Patten.

“Picked them up from the printer’s yesterday,” I mention.

“Cool coloring,” Van Patten says, studying the card closely.

“That’s bone,” I point out. “And the lettering is something called Silian Rail.”

“Silian Rail?” McDermott asks.

“Yeah. Not bad, huh?”

“It is very cool, Bateman,” Van Patten says guardedly, the jealous bastard, “but that’s nothing He pulls out his wallet and slaps a card next to an ashtray. “Look at this.”

We all lean over and inspect David’s card and Price quietly says, “That’s really nice.” A brief spasm of jealousy Courses through me when I notice the elegance of the color and the classy type. I clench my fist as Van Patten says, smugly, “Eggshell with Homalian type. . .” He turns to me. “What do you think?”

“Nice,” I croak, but manage to nod, as the busboy brings four fresh Bellinis.

Ellis’s, and our, world is a capitalist one, choice without option, sustained by a dark underbelly of violent psychosis. In the words of Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), published the same year as American Psycho: ‘this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror’.

And here we are quibbling about video games.



The Price of Hope

In my last blog post, I wrote about the emphatic rejection of neoliberal economics and criminal foreign policy represented by Obama’s recent victory. Or, if in terms less optimistic, the electorate expressed its doubts in the American Way, which had been their lot for the last thirty-plus years.  Financial meltdown, tragic failure in New Orleans and a disastrous war in Iraq had at the very least made the American public suspicious, and unwilling to risk further complicitous behaviour. Judith Butler, as she does, weighs in with a much more nuanced and complicated take on this tentative disavowal by the United States electorate.

We cannot underestimate the force of dis-identification in this election, a sense of revulsion that George W. has “represented” the United States to the rest of the world, a sense of shame about our practices of torture and illegal detention, a sense of disgust that we have waged war on false grounds and propagated racist views of Islam, a sense of alarm and horror that the extremes of economic deregulation have led to a global economic crisis.  Is it despite his race, or because of his race, that Obama finally emerged as a preferred representative of the nation?  Fulfilling that representative-function, he is at once black and not-black (some say “not black enough” and others say “too black”), and, as a result, he can appeal to voters who not only have no way of resolving their ambivalence on this issue, but do not want one.  The public figure who allows the populace to sustain and mask its ambivalence nevertheless appears as a figure of “unity”: this is surely an ideological function. Such moments are intensely imaginary, but not for that reason without their political force.

President-Elect Obama introduces a profound politics of disavowal: the American people have not only rejected the Republican policies that have marred the last eight years, but in order to choose Obama they have also had to disavow something else. Throughout his campaign, Senator Obama asserted that above all else he represented the American dream—in his narrative, a black man from a poor family who has been given the opportunity by his great country to achieve his full potential and become the leader of the free world. Along with this, however, Obama has come to also represent a nation fraught with impossible contradictions: the incurable traumas of race, class and region. In Obama, we see the American tendancy to launch missles in the name of peace, to torture in the name of freedom; or, more insiduously, to laud ambition as well as equality, democracy as well as capitalism. To accept one myth, we must disavow another. As Butler continues:

If we seek through this presidency to overcome a sense of dissonance, then we will have jettisoned critical politics in favor of an exuberance whose phantasmatic dimensions will prove consequential.  Maybe we cannot avoid this phantasmatic moment, but let us be mindful about how temporary it is. If there are avowed racists who have said, “I know that he is a Muslim and a terrorist, but I will vote for him anyway,” there are surely also people on the left who say, “I know that he has sold out gay rights and Palestine, but he is still our redemption.”  I know very well, but still: this is the classic formulation of disavowal. Through what means do we sustain and mask conflicting beliefs of this sort?  And at what political cost?

If Obama permits us not only to reject the politics we dis-identify with, he also enables us to disavow the politics we hold close to our heart, to compartmentalize them and shore them against the fear of betrayal.

We see this in Ralph Nader’s unfortunate statement, reiterated in an interview with a distasteful Fox News anchor: ‘[Obama’s] choice, basically, is whether he’s going to be Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations’. The sentiment of the question is important, indeed, desperate, for those who put their faith in Obama. But the fact that Nader needlessly phrased this pointed challenge to Obama in racialized language indicates the kind of disavowal occurring in those who would put Obama in the same boat as McCain, Bush and Clinton: “I know that he is black and has overcome the impossible and criminal limits that have heretofore defined a nation, but he is a neoliberal hawk and a war-criminal-in-waiting’. We see the disavowal of race in a candidacy defined by it in order to pursue our own desires. Nader’s slip announces race as a determining factor in our expectations for Obama even as we swear to be colour blind.

I don’t know if the strategies Obama allows in us to overcome the contradictions of living in America today are the right ones. I don’t know if purchasing a chance at social health care with the human rights of Gays and Lesbians is a good deal. Or if a man who can look at Iraq and Afghanistan and call one war good and one bad is a promising sign of peace. I will only cautiously note the difference Lauren Berlant cites between Obama’s rhetoric of hope and Clinton’s obscene sentimentality:

in response to the Washington Post’s observation that Obama is uncomfortable with performing Clintonesque sentimentality of the “I feel your pain” variety, I thought, that’s right, Obama’s more like “I feel your hope.”  Does the difference matter?

I think so.  Obama is detaching from the liberal tradition of claiming that our wounds are what make us alike and what make us obligated to aid  each other. Obama’s saying that it’s hope that makes us alike, especially the hope for politics to advance the world toward deserving our optimism for it.

So what are we bargaining for this optimism? And what do we get for our money? I’ll let Butler, whose equal parts cynicism and optimism appeal to me, conclude this piece:

In the place of an impossible promise, we need a series of concrete actions that can begin to reverse the terrible abrogation of justice committed by the Bush regime; anything less will lead to a dramatic and consequential disillusionment.  The question is what measure of dis-illusion is necessary in order to retrieve a critical politics, and what more dramatic form of dis-illusionment will return us to the intense political cynicism of the last years. Some relief from illusion is necessary, so that we might remember that politics is less about the person and the impossible and beautiful promise he represents than it is about the concrete changes in policy that might begin, over time, and with difficulty, bring about conditions of greater justice.

Here’s hoping.



No Country for Old Men

In one of his more memorable lines, Mr. Burns, while looking upon Marge Simpson’s portrait of himself, revises Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous ‘I know it when I see it’ opinion on obscenity: ‘You know, I’m no art critic, but I know what I hate. And…I don’t hate this’.

After Obama’s resounding, indeed, dominant, victory last night, America made plain, with big, broad strokes, what they hate. It was a rejection of almost thirty years of neoliberal policies that have paupered the economy, mired the nation in an unwinnable and costly war, increased and polarized class and racial divisions while blatantly failing to protect its citizenry against anything from hurricaines to recession. I have remained cynical of Obama throughout the election, despite my tacit support of him, because he is poised to betray the progresive votes the Democrats have historically taken for granted and pursue the hawkish, poisonous tack Blue presidents have felt compelled to take in order to show their quality. But I don’t hate Obama, and that’s comforting somehow.

It’s hard to hate a man who is undeniably responsible for a 10-million-strong increase in votes, good for 64 percent. More than that, CNN reported that 72 percent of first-time voters voted for change. The symbolic value of Obama in the White House, not only its resonance for American race relations but for the reverberating rejection of neoconservative ideology, is encouraging. John McCain, the aging, jerky relic of the Republican party, has been set adrift, cast away from a nation that sees through his palour as if for the first time.

The cautionary message in this election is that Ralph Nader and the Green Party’s Cynthia McKinney received less than 1% of the electorate; which indicates to me that while the American public knows what it hates, it has not yet turned its disapproval into a positive program for change. America has voted for change, but it has not demanded it. Now that progressives everywhere have lobbied Obama into the White House, do they still have the stamina (and more importantly, the money) to hold his feet to the fire? Obama promises to take his country out of the calamity that is Iraq, but to increase troop numbers in the equally shambolic Afghanistan. Is this the democratic solution to the Middle East?

I must admit, Obama-rama has stirred me, as it has stirred a nation. But the important thing to remember about democracy is that it does not start and stop on election day. If now is the time, then America must look within to decide not only what it hates, but why. Don’t settle for a softer, more charismatic version of the same toxic politics. Demand the change you voted for.